With an eye toward the Day of Fasting and Prayer, convoked by John Paul II for Dec. 14, Father Thomas Spidlik, professor of Eastern spiritual theology at several universities in Rome, explained the meaning of this ascetic practice. A few years ago, Father Spidlik preached the spiritual exercises in the presence of the Pope and his closest associates.
–Q: Why fast?
–Father Spidlik: There are instances of fasting in the Old Testament, such as when David refused to eat, grieving over his son´s illness. However, in the Old Testament, fasting is primarily preparation for the coming of Christ.
Prescribed fasts had this purpose. This is the reason why the early Christian communities felt dispensed from fasting: Christ has come, we are no longer obliged to abstain, they said.
However, fasting was soon reintroduced during Lent and before Christmas. Why? Above all, the reason is social. “You eat much, and others are hungry. Is it not right, perhaps, that you give up something in order to give it to the poor?” the Church Fathers asked the faithful.
It is interesting to note, however, that the reason, which today we would describe as austerity, was not absent. “To eat too much harms health,” they wrote. This is at the root of the Christian distinction between desire and need, a teaching which it would be useful to rediscover today.
–Q: What relation is there between fasting and prayer?
–Father Spidlik: To keep these two elements together is of the essence of Christian fasting. People understand it in a rather popular way. They say: “I pray, but in order to have God hear me, I fast.”
Instead, the Church Fathers say the exact opposite: “If you do not fast, you cannot pray well. If you are unable to give up something, how can you say that your words to God are sincere?”
Fasting is prayer of the body, which in this way shares in my spiritual attitude. I think it is an important experience today, because it is hard for us to see consistency between our thoughts and our life. At times, we take refuge in strange practices, but this is the most natural: to live a certain discipline of the body together with the spirit.
–Q: What is the meaning of fasting in community, as will be the case next Friday, Dec. 14?
–Father Spidlik: As is the case with everything that is done together, the intention is to affirm something against the general mentality. In pilgrimages, there is a combined movement to affirm that Another exists. The same is true for this fast, which in addition reminds us that a great part of the world´s population is at war and suffers hunger.
–Q: What can a fast say to the man of today, so confused by the events of recent weeks?
–Father Spidlik: The confusion of these days is evident. It speaks to us of a divided man. Evil comes from the separation between the life of the body, public life, thought and prayer. This is why fasting is important. And then, of course, there is the whole area of charity, which is typically Christian: Fasting is an invitation to share what we have with those who suffer.
–Q: If you were to give advice on how to live Dec. 14, what would you say?
–Father Spidlik: Let us remember that fasting and almsgiving go hand in hand. Let us remember when our families put something aside for beggars. Muslims also had the custom of preparing an additional meal for a pilgrim. Self-denial in order to give to those who suffer is an action that is timelier than ever.